Memento Mori

After finishing Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls, I remembered why I stopped reading hardcore serial killer mysteries. I couldn't (and can't) handle the parade of violence. I like the intellectual puzzles, but I hate seeing women--even fictional women--being horribly killed. I don't know if it's because I pay more attention to the news in the last few years or what, but I have a hard time turning off my imagination when authors start to describe the victims' deaths.

When one reads about a particularly sick killer, it's hard not to wonder about the authors who sit around and dream these things up. (I often wonder the same thing about horror writers.) But it's not fair to judge authors or readers by these books.

I'm not sure why The Shining Girls got to me so much, maybe it was because the author didn't explain how her killer came to be the way he was. In other serial killer novels I've read, even Thomas Harris' Hannibal novels, the author delves into the killer's psychology. By giving the killer depth, their crimes don't just read as senseless, meaningless violence. I'm not sure why the distinction matters to me so much, but it does.


The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 4 June 2013.

The Shining Girls
I was a big fan of Lauren Beukes' Zoo City when it came out, so I leapt at the chance to read and review The Shining Girls. Zoo City was original and unusual and startling. The Shining Girls is all three of those things but, unfortunately, it doesn't have as much depth as that other book. By the time I was done with The Shining Girls, I was glad it was over because I don't know how much more I could have taken.

The Shining Girls begins with a promising premise. Harper Curtis finds a House that can transport him back and forth in time between 1931 and 1993. Curtis is a down on his luck man who really will kill people as soon as look at them. After a particularly bad night, he stumbles into the House and finds a dead man on the floor. Something, possibly the House itself, calls to him. In an upstairs bedroom, Curtis sees names carved into the wall and a random assortment of artifacts from the next sixty years scattered around. He becomes obsessed with completing "circles," loops that fans of time travel novels would call paradoxes. He visits his victims, girls that "shine," when they are young to give them a present and scare them. Then Curtis visits them years later, just as they are starting to make a difference, and kills them with escalating gruesomeness.

Curtis' chapters alternate with chapters narrated by Kirby Mazrachi, the only one of Curtis' victims to survive. Kirby is angry and stubborn and a terrific narrator. She gets a internship at the Chicago Sun-Times and uses her new access to try and find Curtis--though she doesn't know exactly who she's looking for until much later in the book. Kirby goes a long way toward redeeming this book, since Beukes also shows us the murders of many of Curtis' targets.

It took me longer than it should have to finish this book because after a while, The Shining Girls just seems like a cabinet of horrors. Beukes doesn't show us where Curtis' motivation comes from, though we do see him as a young, budding psychopath. As far as the reader is concerned, the mysterious House (maybe) talks to Curtis and sets him on his spiraling path through time. The House is never explained, which I might have gone for if Curtis had been explained more. The best parts of the book, and the parts that the glowing reviews I've read, are Kirby's chapters. The Shining Girls has a terrific premise and I know Beukes has the writing chops to do better than this. I just couldn't handle the mindless violence.


Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother?
A few years ago, I read and loved Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, a moving exploration of her relationship with her father and her father's conflicted relationship with his homosexuality. It's hard to believe but her memoir Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is an even more complicated book than Fun Home. Of course, all of our relationships with out mothers are complicated. (Otherwise, psychiatry wouldn't exist. As the Freud joke goes, "If it's not one thing, it's your mother.) But because Bechdel is hyperanalytical and anxious, her relationship is particularly fraught.

In Fun House, Bechdel used James Joyce's Ulysses to help her analyze and make sense of her father's life. In Are You My Mother? Bechdel turns to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and the work of Donald Winnicott, a pioneering child psychiatrist. Woolf uses the Ramsays in Lighthouse to examine similar experiences from her own childhood. Winnicott, however, I think the most useful tool for her. He has a lot to say--in relatively clear language for a mid-Twentieth century psychiatrist--about how children form their own identity and sense of self apart from their mothers. He writes about different kinds of mothers and Bechdel zeroes in on the "Good-Enough Mother." The term sounds like faint praise until you listen to Winnicott explain that this kind of mother is supportive and loving, but allows her children the independence to make mistakes and learn to be self-reliant and develop their own identity.

Structurally, Are You My Mother? is a recursive conversation that Bechdel has with her mother. She talks about the extreme discomfort she felt mining her mother's past to write about her father in Fun Home. She talks about her mother's acting career, her mother's courtship, her mother's reactions to Fun Home. Bechdel talks about the uncomfortable questions her therapists and analysts asks. The whole book leaves you on edge because you can't help but ask the same questions of yourself. Are you angry with your mother? What did you want your mother to give you that she didn't give? Etc. etc. Bechdel circles back and back again, giving you as the reader more backstory to understand the importance of the moments she chooses to show you. In spite of the doubt Bechdel confesses to about how to approach a book about her mother, her book is incredibly clever.

What I'll take away from Are You My Mother? is that we all have psychologically complex relationships with our mothers. We're utterly dependent when we're born and for a long time after. But our mothers are still their own person; they're more than just moms. We need our mothers more than they need us. It's hard to articulate the emotional needs we want our mothers to fulfill. No wonder Bechdel has such a hard time even starting this book.


Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 10 September 2013.

Burial Rites
It's hard to believe that until the late 1940s, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in Europe. Until the country received Marshall Plan money, most people were subsistence farmers. With a three month growing season, life is incredibly hard without modernization. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent takes us into that pre-modern Iceland, to 1829. Burial Rites is based on an actual murder trial and follows Agnes Magnúsdóttir during the last few months before her execution. Agnes was born to an unwed mother who abandoned her before she was ten. She had to make her way in the world as best she could, traveling from farm to farm trying to find a place to live permanently. But in a country where everyone is living in a narrow margin between feast and famine, there's not much left over for the poor and unconnected.

Burial Rites opens with excepts from documents Kent found while researching Agnes' case. In the author notes at the end of the book, Kent says that, aside from being translated, the documents are unaltered. She uses them to help move the story along, as a counterpoint to Agnes' tale and life as a prisoner in Kórnsa. The language of the historic documents is very polite, so polite that it's hard to believe that they're talking about executing two people for murder. The documents not only lay out the monetary value of Agnes' worldly goods, but also the place, manner, and audience of her excecution--down to what her coffin should be made of. According to the history, Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Agnes gets a chance to tell her story through the medium of an assistant reverend and the mistress of the house that's holding her prisoner until her execution. She talks, reluctantly, about her hard, loveless childhood. Then she talks, even more reluctantly, about what happened on the night she is accused of helping to murder Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. I'll leave it a mystery whether she actually did do it or not, because that would spoil the book.

Between the historical touches and Agnes' sincere voice, Burial Rites becomes an amazing glimpse into Icelandic life. Anges' life is utterly heartbreaking, because you have to know how it ends. There's no chance for a last minute reprieve because Kent follows what the historical record gives her. She only allows herself license to let Agnes speak for herself. In that way, I think, Kent gives Agnes some justice. This book is incredible.


But this is just, like, my opinion, man.

Earlier this week, I read an odd piece from Mark O'Connell on The Millions in which O'Connell argued that Flann O'Brien's Poor Mouth was the funniest novel ever written. Reviewing books is necessarily subjective. And recommending a book is even more subjective. Proclaiming something the adjective-est of anything is probably the most wildly subjective thing you can do. I've read a lot of articles declaring that such and such a book is the funniest ever written, but O'Connell's the most interesting. Not only does it put forth a book I've never heard of, but O'Connell has a more sophisticated sense of humor than the writers of those other articles. I highly recommend that article, if not the book.

Funny and weird.
The best combination.
O'Connell's article inspired me to come up with my own list of funniest books I've read. My sense of humor is not as sophisticated as O'Connell's. It's irreverant and I have a greater fondness for whimsy and silliness than most people. These books, presented in no special order, are the ones that had me chuckling and chortling and even guffawing with laughter.

  • Doughnut, by Tom Holt. Physics can be hilarious. But then, anything written by Tom Holt will be hilarious and this is his best book. 
  • Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. This book has a lot to answer for when it comes to my spirituality. It asks all the questions I had in Sunday school, but I enjoyed the answers Pratchett and Gaiman came up with better than anything my pastor came up with.
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This books has been suggested as the funniest book ever written several times, and I'd say it's pretty close to the mark. The humor is well out of the ordinary, so I don't think it will appeal to everyone. It's the best picaresque written in the last 100 years.
  • Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. I love a good satire. So many novels pile misery on their common sense-lacking characters that I get frustrated with them. This book turns all that on its head.
  • Lamb, by Christopher Moore. This book is on my short list of favorite books of all time. Like Good Omens, this book explores religion through humor. It's more than just laughs, though. The ending is so moving that it gives the book heart.
  • Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. This book is the silliest thing I have ever read, hands down. This has also been a candidate for funniest novel ever written and I'm glad, because silly is vastly underrated. 

She Rises, by Kate Worsley

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 18 June 2013.

She Rises
Between 1664 and 1814, the Royal Navy pressed (forcibly conscripted) men with naval skills because they could never get enough men to volunteer to serve on their ships. Any man between 15 and 55 was fair game and had to serve until they were released. If they tried to get away, they were labeled deserters and sentenced to execution. Some of the pressed men were rounded up by press gangs who would go ashore in port towns looking for men too drunk or weak to resist. Some men were hauled out of prisons and poorhouses to serve. The reason I bring all this up is that this dreadful practice is a major plot point in Kate Worsley's stunning novel, She Rises.

Worsley introduces us to Luke Fletcher on the worst day of his young life. He wakes in the hold of the HMS Essex with a bloody wound on the back of his head and cuffs around his wrists. Along with the other men in the hold, Luke has been pressed into service in spite of his lack of shipshapeness. As Luke tries to adjust to the rough life of the Royal Navy and keep his secrets, Worsley introduces us to Louise Fletcher, a former dairymaid turned lady's maid (in spite of her lack of training) to a very spoiled girl named Rebecca Handley. Rebecca has what filmmakers would call "It." She's a bewitching and frustrating girl. She flirts with everyone around her, though she's supposed to be spoken for by a well-to-do merchant marine. Louise falls under her spell within months and it seems like Rebecca falls for her maid, too, especially after a bout of smallpox.

I loved the way this book is written. Worsley takes us back two hundred or more years with her characters' language. They use the pungent dialog of the time. They talk about not only the sights and sounds of their world, but also the smells. She Rises is an immersive read. Luke tells his story in strong, descriptive language. I swear I could hear the snap of the sails and the howl of the wind as Luke, almost against his will, finds his sea legs. And when he talks about the girl left behind on shore, you can feel his longing. Louise tells her story to "You," addressing her story to Rebecca.

As the chapters roll by, it becomes clear that Louise and Luke's stories are not running in parallel to each other. It's clear some time has passed between Louise's experiences as a lady's maid and her telling her story to Rebecca. Something dreadful happened in the meantime. But Worsley doesn't show you exactly how the two narratives are connected until the last third of the book. She Rises changes from sea adventure to unlikely love story to a beautifully bittersweet bildungsroman.

I loved everything about this book.


Lexicon, by Max Barry

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley to review, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released on 18 June 2013.

In the world that Max Barry created in Lexicon, trained poets can gain root access to your brain by using words. It's an amazing premise but, unfortunately, I don't think the book managed to live up to the potential due to structural issues and lack of character development. It's not a horrible book. I just think it needed a little more time in the incubator.

Lexicon has an absolutely terrifying opening, if you happen to need glasses or contacts. One of the protagonists, Wil Parke, comes to with a needle in his eye. With no explanation by the men who are holding him captive, they force Wil to escape with them from an airport. People are trying to kill him and because Wil is suffering from amnesia, he has no idea who they are or why they want to kill him. Just as soon as Wil makes it to relative safety, Barry cuts over to his other protagonist and jumps in time to (I think) about ten years before Wil has a needle stuck in his eye. Barry introduces us to Emily Ruff, a young hustler who's been homeless for years. She's a master of short cons. Within pages, she is recruited to a very strange school that specializes in training poets. Of course they don't tell her this right away. Emily is left to piece together what they're trying to teach her with psychology, linguistics, rhetoric, political science, and a soupçon of mythology. She hones her already impressive skills in persuasion to the point where she can pretty much talk anyone into anything. What they don't teach Emily (or any of the other recruits) is ethics.

Barry switches back and forth between Wil and Emily, dropping hints as to why everyone seems to want to kill everyone else. Because I was reading an advanced reader copy, the section changes were abrupt or absent. All of a sudden the pronouns would change and I would have to reorient myself. I assume that this will be fixed in the final edition, otherwise a lot of readers are going to be lost. (It might not be entirely fair of me to judge the book on this basis, but I have to review the text I was given.)

With the changes in time and place, it's hard to get sucked into the narrative. Wil's plotline is tense like a thriller. Emily's timeline is a slow burn, more unsettling than captivating. The structure causes so many little cliffhangers that it's wearying. When the timelines finally get close to converging they get, if anything, harder to follow because there's even more jumping around in time. I have no problem with complex structures as long as they serve the narrative. However, I get the impression that Barry just couldn't think of a better way to lay out the story. Lexicon would have worked better, I think, if it had just one protagonist instead of two. On their own, the two plotlines are very interesting. They just don't work when they're smashed together.

The other issue I had with this book was the main villain. It doesn't take much effort to work out who's behind the schemes. At the end of the book, Barry explains why Yeats is the way he is, but that explanation turns him into a Big Bad because he doesn't know any other way to be. It also takes away any possibility of redemption. It cuts off the possibility of eleventh hour dramatic twists that I enjoy. In the end, the only option is to put him down like a sick dog.

There's a lot of potential in this book. Unfortunately, the problems with the structure and characterization made this book a chore for me to get through. If the final version of the book has the section breaks more clearly marked, I think this book will be a lot more enjoyable.


Scribbling on the Shoulders of Giants

And then Indiana Jones
fights Lord Voledmort...
This week's literary bombshell was Amazon's news that they would publish fan-fiction in such a way that the original copyright holders of characters and settings would be compensated. Kindle Words, apparently, divvies up the royalties between the new and old authors--but the new writers have to give up their own copyrights in a delicious bit of irony.

Fair use and copyright expiration, as I tell my library research students, exist because we need to be able to build on what's come before to create something new. Anything published before 1923 is already fair game, so we've seen books like Wide Sargasso Sea and Silver: Return to Treasure Island. There have been a plethora of Pride and Prejudice riffs, some of which would  have Jane Austen spinning in her grave. (Or, in other versions, rising from her grave to kill upstart writers.)

I love to see ideas and characters get a second life, but fan fiction? Some (a lot) of it is dreadful. Some (a shocking amount) is pornographic because people have sick minds. According to paidContent's article, there will be some limits on what will be published:
Kindle Worlds won’t publish all of the works submitted to it; it will only accept some (though the company says it aims to accept as many as possible, as long as they adhere to content guidelines).
The content guidelines rule out slash fiction and other fantasies, so there's that at least.

I've seen two kinds of reactions so far. There are writers who are miffed that the fanfic writers will lose their copyright, which is prevented be a lot of author guild rules. The other reaction is horror that fan fiction will gain some legitimacy through Kindle Words. The reaction I haven't see is no one is pointing out that neither Kindle Words nor the potential authors are asking permission of the living copyright holders. In this instance, I think copyright is protecting characters and ideas and settings from being cheapened by writers who can't or won't stay true to them, or who don't have the chops or wit to make something new and shiny out of them. To me, that's more important than the money that would be changing hands.


A renowned easy target

Ever since Dan Brown's Inferno came out, I've sensed that book critics have been sharpening their metaphorical knives to take this book down. It's almost like the movie critics when the Twilight movies came out. Just in the week since it came out, I've found two absolutely hilarious take downs:
I've read both Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, and was entertained by them. (At least the first time. The second time through The Da Vinci Code I couldn't get past all the expository dialog and clichés.*) Aside from the flaws in the books, I think what makes people want to make fun of Dan Brown and his creations so much is the perceived pretension. I've enjoyed the literary burns.

But people read him. Whenever my library's director gives me a hard time for buying graphic novels, my response is similar: they get people to read them. It's the same with the Twilight books. No matter how much Brown and Meyer might offend my bookish tastes, at least people are reading. And that's what matters, right?

Grr. Argh.


* Rebecca Joines Schinsky at BookRiot has a list of clichés and Brown-isms she expects to see in her post, "Dan Brown's Inferno by the Numbers."


The Boy Who Could See Demons, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published in the United States on 13 August 2013. (It's already available in the UK.) 

The Boy WhoCould See Demons
Mental illness, if you don't suffer from it yourself, is hard to understand. Even if you have a relative or close friends who has one, it's near impossible to put yourself in the mindset of someone who--for examples--sees or hears things that aren't there, has such awful depression that they can't keep a job, or has a dread of social situations to the point of having panic attacks. Carolyn Jess-Cooke's The Boy Who Could See Demons, though, does an amazing job of showing you the world through the eyes of a character who suffers from schizophrenia.

The boy in question, Alex Connolly, believes that he can see a demon named Ruen. The demon appears in four unpleasant guises and claims to be studying Alex to find out if the boy really is untemptable. Alex and his depressed mother live in a council house in Belfast. After one more suicide attempt by his mother and because of his own disturbing assertions, Alex is assigned to be evaluated by child psychiatrist Anya Molokova who, in spite of her name, is also a Belfast native. Anya's daughter, now dead, suffered from early onset schizophrenia, giving Anya some more metaphorical demons to wrestle with. The story is told in alternative excerpts from Alex and Anya's journals.

Alex's story is absolutely compelling, to the point where I started to wonder if Jess-Cooke wasn't going for something a little more fantastic. Alex's demon knew about things that Alex shouldn't have known. The Boy Who Could See Demons becomes more and more tense as events become less explicable, even with the diagnosis of the notorious schizophrenia. The best thing about this already great book is the ending. I did not see that ending coming.

But I will say no more, because that would just ruin the experience.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

The Golem and Jinni
The immigrant experience is a familiar one in historical fiction. It's the narrative of thousands of people picking up stakes and crossing the wide Atlantic Ocean to create new lives in America. Everyone brings their grand dreams of a new life. But Helene Wecker gives us a new twist to the tale in The Golem and the Jinni. Instead of the protagonists fleeing an old life with hopes of a new, our heroes find themselves in America much to their surprise. One of them, who technically comes from a shtetl near Danzig (modern Gdańsk), could be said to have been born on the journey. She's a golem, created to be the wife of a man who dies of appendicitis shortly after waking her. The other, a jinni, is freed from a flask after a thousand years of imprisonment by a Syrian tinsmith. Wecker shows us the challenge of creating a new life through the lens of two characters figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Wecker brings turn of the Twentieth century New York to life, showing us the journeys and experiences of the characters around Chava and Ahmad.

The golem, who walked ashore after jumping ship to avoid customs and Ellis Island, has a bit of luck when a very learned rabbi recognizes her for what she is and takes her in. Because she doesn't have a master (golems are traditionally bound to someone to give them purpose), the rabbi helps her disguise her true nature and finds her a job at a local bakery. He names her Chava, for the Hebrew word for life. Chava is constantly worried about making mistakes because she does not need to eat or sleep or take breaks. She can also hear the unspoken desires and wishes of everyone else around her. It's her nature to want to help, even if what a person silently wishes isn't what they should have.

As Chava settles uneasily into her American life, in Little Syria, a tinsmith gets a commission to fix an heirloom copper flask. But when he cuts away a decorative band on the flask, he releases a nameless jinni. The jinni is furious, especially when he discovers that he's not completely free. An unbreakable iron bracelet keeps him from exercising his full powers. It doesn't help that he can't get revenge on the wizard who put him in the flask has been dead for centuries.

The jinni, dubbed Ahmad for lack of anything better, and Chava learn to live within their limits. This would have been interesting on its own, but Wecker complicates the story for the two friends by having Chava's creator also arrive in America. Yehudah Schaalman is a twisted man, who has bent the teachings of Judaism and the Kabbalah and hundreds of years of mysticism in a quest for power and immortal life. He believes that Chava and Ahmad have that secret, and he's willing to destroy them to find out what it is.

The Golem and the Jinni was a joy to read.


Fictional truth is stranger than truth is stranger than fiction

And then these dudes showed up and asked what the hell
we were doing wearing all those clothes on a tropical island.
My favorite teacher was a history teacher in junior high. He would stand at the front of the class and tell us stories about George Washington and Christopher Columbus and John Winthrop and John Wilkes Booth. Learning from Mr. Sweigert wasn't about memorizing dates and places and events. It was listening to a really good story.

I joke that everything I learned about quantum mechanics comes from Michael Crichton's Timeline. I might as well joke that most of what I know about history comes from historical fiction. I've learned from these books, in part, because I can't stay away from Wikipedia and my library's non-fiction collection.

For me, the best works of historical fiction are about the people you don't hear about in the history books--and it's not just because I end up questioning fiction with famous protagonists so much that I can't get into the story. When I finished reading Connie Willis' Blackout and All Clear, then went back to her dedication to all the people on the home front. That dedication was so moving the second time around that, when I closed the book I had to just sit there for a long minute and think about the actual people who endured and fought the Second World War. That's what great historical fiction does (even if those books have time travelers).

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, has earned a lot of critical attention since it's been written. Not only did it win a Booker Award, but it's sequel won one the next year. I picked it up with a lot of anticipation. I even studied up on the main characters Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn, and Sir Thomas More before I started to read it.

It's a good thing I did, because Wolf Hall assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. (Probably because the author is British.) As I read it, I was reminded of nothing so much as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Cromwell reads like he's unstuck in time. Wolf Hall begins chronologically enough. We meet Cromwell as a very young man in Putney, being beaten horribly by his father. He runs away and finds room on a ship headed for the Netherlands. By the time we see him again, he's a rising merchant and Cardinal Wolsey's man. Overall, the plot follows the history of Henry's quest for a divorce up to 1533, but it drifts back and forth across Cromwell's life. We see him at his home in Austen Friars with his family. We see him consoling Cardinal Wolsey as Wolsey falls from favor. We see him been taunted by Thomas More. My brushing up paid off in spades here because the book is written so it's hard to keep everything in your head.

While I enjoyed the witty dialog and historical accuracy, the book's style made this book a chore for me to get through. Mantel focuses more on events that surround the main religious and political crisis--you know, what you'd expect the book to focus on. It frustrated me that every time the characters' conversations would get down to actual decisions, Mantel cuts away. So while Mantel shows us Cromwell rising and rising through the ranks, it almost seems that suddenly Katherine of Aragon is shunted aside, then boom! Anne and Henry secretly marry in Calais, then bam! Anne is pregnant. It's like watching a documentary in which the camera man was always a little too late to capture the action. And then Christopher Nolan edits it as though it's Memento.

I read a few of the reviews for this book in The New York Times and The Guardian to see what I was missing. The reviews for this book are just glowing. They enjoyed the fresh take on Cromwell. In other depictions, Cromwell is a villain and More the saintly hero. In his version, More is warped by religion and petty and sanctimonious. Cromwell is a pragmatist, not hung up on points of religion. Mantel portrays Henry as a man, rather than a complete horndog. Anne, rather than a being a Venus, becomes more of a villain who uses every one of her wiles to be queen. She is utterly ruthless. After hundreds of years of hearing the same narrative, I can understand that a new look at the main players is appreciated.

The biggest issue that I have with the book is the way it's written. Wolf Hall is not a book you can just sink into and be transported to the sixteenth century. (Which is what I was looking for.) I kept reading the book because of my declaration a few months back about why you should read challenging books and I didn't want to be a hypocrite about one more thing. I did learn from this book. It was worth my time. I just didn't enjoy reading it.


Speak of the Book

Yesterday, I gave a book talk. Well, book is a little misleading but books talk is grammatically and verbally awkward. So.

I regret that I have but one book cart to give to my audience.
Yesterday, I got up in front of an audience and talked about books for a half an hour. I shared some of my favorite books from a browsing collection I helped create at my library. Then, I checked some of the books out to people. It was wonderful, and warmed my librarian’s heart, to see people queuing to check out books that I had talked them into. To prepare, I grabbed a cart and started pulling books off the shelves in a bunch of different genres: nonfiction, science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and literary (for lack of a better term). When I speak in public, I speak extemporaneously. If I prepare notes, I rarely ever look at them. I knew I wouldn’t need them for the book talk because I knew that they would just trip me up. Friends and colleagues know that when I get started talking about books, it’s hard to get me to shut up. It was such an exciting presentation that it took several hours for me to wind down even though I was physically tired from the performance.

I think the trick to giving a book talk is, somehow, boiling down your experience of the book into its core questions. For example, my reading of Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman is that the book is about justice and what’s worth fighting for—not the end of the world. Another: Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries is a sadly neglected Great American Novel. It’s harder than it sounds, until you realize that it’s your reading that matters. I was honest with my audience that I wasn’t giving them the critics version; I was telling them about books that I had loved and was speaking to them as a reader.

Maybe that’s the trick: letting your love of books show.

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the 30 books I talked about:
I chatted with some of my colleagues before I headed over to where the book talk was scheduled and I had to fight them off before they checked out some of my books.


The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel's Game
Have you ever been blow away be a book? Have you ever finished a book and just had to take a few long breaths to get your feet back under you? After finishing Carols Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game, I feel like that. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it because just so much happened in the book.

The Angel's Game is linked to the other Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, comprised of The Shadow of the Wind and The Prisoner of Heaven. All three are set, at different times, in Barcelona. The first book, The Shadow of the Wind, is set in the 1950s. The Angel's Game goes back a few decades, and tells the story of a pulp fiction writer in the 1920s and 1930s. David Martín begins his writing life at a small newspaper named The Voice of Industry, mentored by his rich friend, Pedro Vidal, and the paper's editor, Basilio Moragas. Martín has a knack for writing Gothic literature and soon has a deal with a pair of shady publishers to write a series called The City of the Damned. They're stories of drugs and femmes fatale, curses, dark allies, and lost lives. The story really takes off when a mysterious publisher from Paris, Andreas Corelli, offers Martín 100,000 francs to write a story that will spawn a new religion. It's a strange commission and Martín has serious misgivings about it. But the money is too good. He takes the deal. 

This would have been enough of a premise for a novel, but Ruiz Zafón stuffs in even more subplots. (Though, you just know that they're all going to come together in the end. It's a like a corollary to the rule that if a gun is mentioned in Act One, it will go off by Act Three. In  mystery novel, if a seemingly unrelated subplot crops up, it will prove to be a vital clue to the bigger mystery.) In The Angel's Game, the seemingly unrelated subplot involves Martín's house. Everyone tells him not to buy the house with the tower because it's haunted; bad things happened there. But because it's such an atmospheric building, he rents it anyway. Curious, he starts to investigate the previous owner, Diego Marlasca, and Marlasca's life of tragedy. Because of Marlasca's mysterious demise, Martín begins to suspect that Marlasca was murdered. Little does Martín know, but the conspiracy is much, much bigger than he suspects. 

When I first bought the book, I thought that I was in for a very long read. The book is 531 page long. But as Ruiz Zafón packs in the bizarre characters and shadowy motives, I was starting to wonder how he would wrap it all up. The ending is spectacular, just spectacular. I kind of want to start reading it over at the beginning. 

It was also great to see the Cemetery of Forgotten Books again. The Cemetery is:
a mystery. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, ever time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands, a new spirit...(519*)
We are given a little more of the Cemetary's history in this book and learn that it has been around for centuries. It's where people who love books put them when others want to destroy them. Initiates have to take a book and promise to keep it safe for the rest of their lives. It's the sort of thing that appeals to librarians and bibliophiles. 


* Kindle edition.

There's something about Lisbeth

After reading the Claire Messud interview in which she called out the interviewer for asking if Messud would be friends with her new protagonist, Nora Eldridge. The interviewer was pointing out how unlikeable the character was, and it got me to thinking about major characters that I liked in spite of their likeability. Two characters immediately leap to mind.

Lisbeth Salandar
First, from Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, is Lisbeth Salander. If I were ever to meet this character in real life, I know that she would drive me nuts. She's prickly, uncommunicative, and highly damaged. And yet, one can't help but be drawn to her. In the last book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, even Lisbeth's allies question why they would drop everything to help her. To me, it illustrates the importance of perspective. While Larsson doesn't actually take us inside Lisbeth's head all that much, we do see the events that shape her motivation. We see why she's prickly and damaged and untrusting. The other thing that Larsson shows us, that makes us like her, is that he shows us her sense of honor. She would be hard to live with, but you know that she'll do the right thing (according to her code, which doesn't always coincide with conventional law) no matter what the cost. The moment I knew that Lisbeth would live in my memory for a long time came in the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. After her so-called advokat assaulted and raped her, Lisbeth takes her own creative revenge. She doesn't go to the police. She doesn't sink into a depression. She doesn't blame herself. She systematically gives that advokat what he deserves, because she knew that the police wouldn't be able to satisfy her need for justice--quite apart from the whole betrayal that happened when she was young.

Ignatius J. Reilly
The second character that I know would drive me nuts if I ever met him in real life is Ignatius J. Reilly, from John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Characters like Reilly, grotesques, don't appear in fiction much any more--certainly not as main characters. I think you'd have to go back as far as the nineteenth or eighteenth century to find his like. He's probably crazy. He's definitely selfish and deluded. And yet, the story wouldn't exist without him. He's a catalyst. I stuck around, in spite of his flaws, because he's just so entertaining to watch. Unlike Lisbeth, who you understand because you get to see her side of the story, the appeal of Reilly is the chaos he sows around him. I don't know if you could ever like him personally, but he's the sort of character that makes life just that much more interesting. He's an original.

I think a novel or story stands on three legs: a character you can bond with or understand, an interesting plot, and skillful writing. Without one of those three, a story will fall flat. But this formula can be manipulated. A great writer can turn it on its head and give us, say, a Holden Caulfield or a Lisbeth Salander or an Ingatius J. Reilly. An interesting plot can (sometimes) be the small lives of a couple falling out of love or an imbecile blundering around the French Quarter of New Orleans trying to find a job that pays him for doing nothing. I suppose the only one that can't be messed with much is the skillful writing. It takes a lot forms, but you have to be able to write to make a story fly. Good characters and plot can only do so much.


One star, two star, red star, blue star

On the Internet, no one knows you're
a dog reviewing books
I've been reading a lot of articles and blog posts this week about the tension between literary critics and amateur book reviewers. I started to think about whether this blog of mine, which I started so that I could at least pretend I was talking to someone about the books I read, might actually be doing more good than just giving me an outlet. Most of the pieces I read defended the literary critic. Criticism, proper criticism, is not something just anyone can do. It requires an educated, widely read person who can not only summarize a work without ruining the story, but who can also help other readers understand the work.

It saddens me that newspapers and journals are shutting down their book review pages and columns. And I'm not just saying that because it would make my job as a book buyer for a library a lot harder without taste makers to help me sort the dross from the gold. I'm saying it because they help me find those books that can widen my horizons as a reader because they pique my interest in books I wouldn't normally pick up and read the back covers of.

That's not to say that bloggers can't be critics. There are a lot of great book blogs out there that do what critics do. But I have noticed a lot of would-be reviewers failing to rise to even the lowest levels of criticism, especially on Amazon. It bothers me when reviewers use stars or take out their frustrations with Amazon affiliates or their hatred of an author's politics out on a book. Books are good or bad regardless of whether a shipper was late or because an author says something idiotic on Twitter. And stars alone don't tell you anything. That's why I don't use any kind of rating system on this blog. I know I whitter on longer than some people are willing to stick around for, but stars don't tell you why a book is good or bad. They certainly won't help you find books that will appeal to your own idiosyncratic reading tastes.

Dead Ever After, by Charlaine Harris

Dead Ever After
I don't normally review series books after the first one, but I have to make an exception for Dead Ever After, by Charlaine Harris. It's the last book of a thirteen book series. I'm going to try and do it without spoilers for the folks who haven't finished it; after all, it only came out on Tuesday.

Because Dead Ever After is the last book, you know it's going to wrap things up, The question for most readers, judging by the anxious and angry comments I've seen for this book on GoodReads and Amazon, is whether it ends the way you want it to. Does Sookie end up with the guy you wanted her to end up with? Most of the other loose ends have already been tied up. But this book isn't all about endings. Harris actually brings up new business in this book.

Dead Ever After doesn't pick up where the last book ended. Instead, Harris shows us the perspective of some new enemies. (As though our intrepid heroine didn't have enough enemies.) We don't meet up with Sookie until after the prologue. Before too many more pages have passed, we see Sookie arrested for murder. It's heartwarming to see how many of her friends and allies show up to try and help her. By this point, after thirteen books, you might think that a series would be running out of steam. But Harris still has a few tricks up her sleeve and I rather enjoyed the twists in this tale.

I'm not going to reveal who Sookie ends up with, because I don't want to get blasted into oblivion by the rabid fans of this series. But I will say that it fit when I reflected back on the previous twelve books. I know a lot of readers are not going to agree with me. Even Harris knew that, judging by what she wrote in the dedication. I like that she stuck to her guns and her original plan. I suspect that the readers who don't like the ending didn't see Sookie the way I see her. I don't read her the same way that I read Bella Swan, as a reader's version of a Mary Sue. Sookie has always had a personality. She's tenacious and knows her own mind and I've always liked that about her.

I'm going to miss spending time with Sookie, because I've enjoyed the books a lot. However, series can't last forever without loosing what made them special and interesting in the first place. Harris is taking the series out on a high note--regardless of what other readers might think.


All things must pass

Last night, I read the last Sookie Stackhouse novel (review forthcoming), Dead Ever After. Before I started, I hopped onto GoodReads to update my currently reading list. Once there, I noticed that a lot of people had already rated the book with one star. They're not the greatest, best written books around, but I've enjoyed the series. (The books are a lot better than the TV series.) Then I found this article on the Wall Street Journal: "How to Kill a Vampire (Series)." It appears than one star reviews are the least of it. Readers have threatened the author, Charlaine Harris. A few have even threatened self-harm over the series ending. I knew that people weren't going to be happy about the end of the series, but I had no idea how far fans would take it. (I should know better. I've spent time on the Internet.)

In the dedication to the book, Harris wrote:
This book is dedicated to the loyal readers who have followed this series from beginning to end...There isn't a way I could make all of you happy with the ending of the series, so I've followed my own plan, the one I've had all along, and I hope you agree that it's fitting. (v)
I'm glad she did. I appear to be one of the few who liked the book, although I don't know how many of those one star reviewers actually read the book.

Dead Ever After is the second series ender I've read this week. I also read Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis--the last book in a trilogy. It was a rare experience. There are so many series, especially mystery series, that just go on forever. They go on even after the author is bored of them and the quality starts to suffer. I admire an author who decides to end a winning series before it gets to that point. (It's one of the many reasons I like Brandon Sanderson.) No matter how much I might miss the characters or the stories, I would rather an author move on to something new before the series suffers.


All things to all people

Now we know where that red book you
were looking for is shelved.
Looking at the outpouring on librarian blogs and in library trade publications, you'd think that librarianship has always been in crisis. Every new piece of technology for the last several decades has, according to some, spelled the end of the library. I've come to the conclusion that technology will change libraries and librarianship, but as long as people need help finding and evaluating and using information, we'll be there. Probably covered in cat hair, but there for you nonetheless.

As I follow the librarian chatter, I see blurbs about conference presentations and articles about makerspaces and innovative library services and ebook lending and radical militant librarianship and on and on. Libraries are experimenting with anything to bring more people into the building, hoping they'll check out a book or two.

It all looks great, because I've always believed that libraries were meant to be something like a commons for people to learn and explore. But there's been push back against this, though not from the crotchety stereotypes you'd expect. It's coming from some of the very people we're trying to lure into the library. During finals week at my library, a patron came up to the Reference Desk and told me it was the loudest library he'd ever been in. He was nonplussed when I explained that our first two floors are designated as noisy floors and the other three are quiet study floors.

Last March, I read two articles complaining about what libraries have started to evolve into. There was this one, from BookRiot, about people creating private libraries just so that they can have quiet places to read. Another, from Gothamist, reports that people are complaining about too much technology in their library. The idea of libraries as warehouses for books is a firmly embedded, though somewhat antiquated, notion in people's minds.

The makerspaces and workshops and technology are bringing people into the library and driving others away. We can't win. We can't be all things to all people, no matter how much we try. Maybe the fact that we're trying is the important thing. To me, all the librarian chatter reveals that there's a crisis in what a library is and what it ought to be. Those of us who are currently librarians are going to be the ones who decide what our future is going to be. It's a hell of a challenge.

Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil
Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis, wraps up a series that almost didn't get published. Last year, Tregillis wrote to explain the long delay between the first book, Bitter Seeds, and the second, The Coldest War. The first book set up a seemingly unwinnable war between a girl who can see the future and her gang of psychically enhanced Nazi weapons and English warlocks who are using the power of demons. The Coldest War kicked things up a notch by having the Soviets wade into the conflict while the price of magic keeps escalating. When we last left our hero, Raybould Marsh, and Gretel the clairvoyant monster jumping from the end of the world into a new time line. Marsh gets a literal second chance to put things right.

In Necessary Evil, Marsh has to fight World War II all over again but twenty years older. Almost immediately, the war starts to take a different course from the one Marsh remembers. Not only does Marsh have to take out Gretel's group of fellow mutants and keep the English warlocks from making deals they don't fully understand, but he also has to deal with his twenty years younger self--who is far to smart for his own good. Tregillis handles his tangled and ambitious plot amazingly well. I couldn't put the book down once I reached the halfway point. I had to see how Marsh would put this impossible situation right.

As I read, I realized that this whole trilogy was all about consequences. The phrase "necessary evil" is repeated throughout this book as Marsh and his few allies have to balance many lives against the end of the world. There's no way it can be resolved without bloodshed. At times, the stakes are so high the book reads like the unsolvable ethical dilemmas from a philosophy class. The choices Marsh ends up making are heartbreaking and yet, they're the right ones. This is an incredible series.


The Asylum, by John Harwood

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. The book will be released on 21 May 2013. 

The Asylum
Aside from slasher movies, few things are as frightening to me as Victorian mental asylums. The doctors who ran the Victorian asylums (and the asylums' predecessors) not only had no idea how to help their patients, but had some notions that would actively harm them. The asylum portrayed in John Harwood's The Asylum is not as scary as it could have been, when compared with notorious institutions such as Bethlem Hospital in London.

The book opens with Georgina Ferrars waking up in a strange bed in the Tregannon Asylum in Cornwall. Almost before she can get her bearings, she is informed by the doctor that she's not who she thinks she is. Apparently, she arrived at the hospital and introduced herself as Lucy Ashton ( the name of a character from a Walter Scott novel). Georgina tries to establish her identity by having the doctor send a telegram to her uncle in London, only to find out that someone has already taken her place and her name.

As Georgina tries to prove who she is and what happened during the six weeks she can't remember, Harwood deepens the mystery by also showing us the letters of Rosina Wentworth. Rosina is an unhappy girl who is kept a virtual prisoner by her father after her older sister elopes. In spite of her father's efforts, Rosina manages to meet a man and fall in love with him. Her story is absolutely captivating. The letters give way to Georgina's journal, which details what our protagonist can't remember. And then, believe it or not, Harwood managed to take an amazing story and kick it up another notch. But...I can say no more without giving away the end.

If you enjoy twisted (as in plot twists) historical fiction, with original characters and unusual motives, I highly recommend The Asylum.


The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

The Boy in the Suitcase
What is it about Scandinavian writers in the last decade that led them to create such twisted mysteries? The first Scandinavian mysteries I read were were the Lizbeth Salandar thrillers by Stieg Larsson, but writers like Arnaldur Indriðason, Henning Mankell, and Peter Høeg have been turning out mysteries and thrillers for more than ten years. I don't know that the the Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis is quite in that league yet, but their The Boy in the Suitcase shares some of that twisted darkness. Reading these books makes it clear that there are two Scandinavias. There's the one we read about in articles that show how far behind social services, education, and quality of life are in American when compared to the Valhalla that is Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Yes, there is a high price to pay in taxes, but those countries are probably the best places on Earth to live. Then there is the other Scandinavia, the one inhabited by immigrants who have fled there looking for a better life. There's horrific brutality, prostitution, human trafficking, drugs. All of these mysteries and thrillers coming out of Scandinavia spring from this tension, I think, between the idealized life and the harsh realities.

In The Boy in the Suitcase, a well meaning nurse named Nina Borg is pulled into a tangled crime gone wrong when an old friend asks her for an odd favor. The friend tells her to go to the train station, open a specific locker, and take what she finds inside. In the locker is an old suitcase. And, as you can guess from the title, a boy--drugged--is inside the suitcase. Nina is about to turn the boy over to the police to help reconnect him with his family when she sees a very large and very angry man trying to kick the hell out of the locker she just emptied. Kaaberbøl and Friis rapidly introduce us to the boy's mother, Sigeta; Jan Marquart, the man who bought the boy; and Jučas, the boy's kidnapper. Kaaberbøl and Friis let their various narrators tell the story, revealing why Mikas was kidnapped and how he came to be in the suitcase and how the notorious "simple plan" spiraled out of control all due to a seagull hitting a plan and delaying it.

The authors work together very, very well and the book reads like the work of a single author with a distinct voice. The characters are wonderfully drawn, even if I mentally stumbled over how to pronounce some of the names and locations. Nina, in particular, is a very interesting crusader. She's the sort of do-gooder who will actually pick up stakes and go to Darfur or Tblisi or other site of human suffering and actually do something about it. Unfortunately, her family pays the price for her absence. At one point, Nina comments that her husband Morten resents it. Morten is outraged by the news, of course, but doesn't do anything more than talk. Nina actually acts. It's an interesting dilemma, to see a person torn between two sets of equally important ideals. (The feminist in me would like to point out that this wouldn't be such a crisis if Nina were a man.)

The book ends with a coda that makes it clear that Nina's adventures in making things right is only the beginning. I'll have to keep an eye open for the next installment.

If my reading rate falls below 80 words a minute, will the book explode?

Eadward Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion" (1878)
It took me about six hours to read the 332 pages of The Fear Index, but in the same amount of time I've only read about 120 some pages of Wolf Hall. It goes to show, I suppose, how much writing style makes a difference to how fast one can read. While The Fear Index is a thriller and written to keep readers turning the pages until way past their bed time, Wolf Hall is historical fiction and written in a literary style. (When I finish the book and write up my review, I will have words to say about why its important to make sure your pronouns have clear antecedents.)

The sharp contrast between the experiences of reading these two books had me reflecting on how fast I read. Should I slow down and savor the language? Is there such a thing as reading too fast? Am I reading so fast that, like Muybridge's horse, I'm not even touching the ground? When I read, when I'm really into the book, I'm not really aware of taking in every word--and yet I still understand what's going on. (But with something like Wolf Hall, I can't do that because the writing is so disjointed.)

The thing about slowing down is that, if I think too much about the fact that I'm reading, my neurons start to stumble over themselves and I lose my connection to the story. It's like being aware of your breathing. If you think about it, you lose the whole rhythm of the thing.


The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

As I read Robert Harris' The Fear Index, I was often reminded of the image you see on the right. The protagonist of The Fear Index is a former CERN physicist who was lured to "the dark side" of investment trading to start a hedge fund. Alexander Hoffman has spend the last several years creating an artificial intelligence than can trade based not only on market history, but also on mood as gathered from the news. You can probably guess from the title that this particular AI specializes in tracking fear.

The novel opens with Hoffman receiving a book he didn't order from a rare book dealer in Amsterdam. This is just the first in a series of strange occurrences in Hoffman's life, but things get very serious later that night when Hoffman is attacked by a mysterious man who apparently waltzed right through Hoffman's fortress-like security. Over the course of the next hundred or so pages, Harris keeps ratcheting up the tension and paranoia as Hoffman and his wife and his partner try to just what the hell is going on.

It's hard to tell just how much of The Fear Index could really happen and how much is fiction. Harris peppers his narrative with statements like this one:
But this was not really money in the physical sense at all, merely strings and sequences of glowing green symbols, no more substantial than protoplasm. That was why they [hedge managers and investment traders] had the nerve to do with it what they did. (108*)
You could say that, like many other books with pointed criticisms like this, The Fear Index is a product of its time. It was published in 2010, a year after the acknowledged start of the Great Recession, three years after the liquidity crisis, and four years after the American housing bubble burst and touched off that whole thing. In the midst of all the plot elements, Harris shows the reader what's going on behind the curtain of the stock markets and exchanges. And you see what Hoffman left out of his frighteningly capable artificial intelligence: ethics. Hence the illustration at right.

The Fear Index
The first clue that the intelligence, VIXAL-4 is working outside its parameters appears the morning after Hoffman's attack. Curiously, VIXAL shorts shares in an airline when the airline's shares are climbing upwards in value. Hoffman and his partner let it go, trusting that VIXAL "knows" what it's doing. Then the news comes that one of the airline's planes has exploded on its way into Moscow. Worse, the plane was bombed by terrorists. Somehow, VIXAL knew before it happened.

It doesn't take long to figure out that VIXAL itself is the villain, if only because it wasn't programmed to be nice. Instead, it was programmed to learn. And it carried on teaching itself when no one, least of all Hoffman, was watching. It's a little terrifying to see what VIXAL does once it's let off its leash. It's hard to dismiss it as fictional after seeing what programs like Watson can do.

The Fear Index has a few flaws. It takes a while to wind up, for one, but the middle and the ending of the book more than make up for that. Hoffman is a hard character to sympathize with, since he's so focused on work that he doesn't have much effort left over for being nice. But, again, the plot more than makes up for it. This is an amazing thriller.

* Kindle edition.